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When will the Royals be competitive again?

Not anytime soon.

Milwaukee Brewers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, I wrote that for a team to compete for a World Series title they need five or six impact bats and a similar number of impact arms. I defined an impact bat as a player who consistently hits upwards of .275 with some power. A player who challenges the pitcher every time he steps in the box. An impact arm would be a starter who is capable of winning 15 games with the ability to pitch 200+ innings in the 3.50 ERA range or better. A team could challenge with three impact starters and three to four impact bullpen arms in the likeness of the Royals past quartet of Hochever-Herrera-Holland and Davis. If you can get to the sixth inning with a lead, a bullpen like that will win you a lot of games as Royal fans well know.

The 2013-15 Royals had both. The bats were led by Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Sal Perez. The late-season addition of Ben Zobrist put them over the top in terms of impact bats. That team also had other players like Alcides Escobar, Alex Rios, and Jarrod Dyson who were capable of creating mayhem on any given night. They didn’t have a lot of easy outs.

The staff, in addition to the bullpen arms of H-H-H-D had the reliable Edison Volquez, Yordano Ventura, who could be electric on any given start, and workhorses Jeremy Guthrie and Danny Duffy. They were a little light on impact starters but the closers and swingmen like Chris Young and Ryan Madson helped. Johnny Cueto, another late-season addition, gave them enough impact arms.

The 1985 Royals, a team the 2022 squad has been compared to in our dreams, didn’t have as many impact bats. Steve Balboni and Frank White were very capable with the bat. Jim Sundberg and Lonnie Smith were solid veterans, but the only two real impact bats were Willie Wilson and George Brett. Hal McRae was absolutely an impact bat during his considerable prime, but by 1985, he was 39 years old and in decline.

That team won the World Series for two reasons. First, it was a weak year in baseball. The Mets, Braves, and Athletics hadn’t matured into the powerhouses they would soon become. There was no wildcard, so the 97-win Yankees (the Royals won the West with 91 wins) stayed home. Kansas City rode their young pitching staff and some bad luck by St. Louis (Vince Coleman getting rolled up in a tarp, Don Denkinger) to that title. 1985 was the season that Bret Saberhagen (21), Danny Jackson (23) and Mark Gubicza (22) jelled and became impact arms. Charlie Liebrandt (28) and Bud Black (28) also made yeoman contributions. 32-year-old Dan Quisenberry threw 129 innings and finished 76 games. Those six were basically the entire pitching staff. The team got hot at the right time and caught lightning in a bottle.

It appears that the prime age to compete for titles is when your impact players are between the ages of 25 and 28. Is the current Royals roster and farm system stocked with enough quality to provide that many impact players in the next two to three seasons?

First, let’s start with who won’t be here. Players on the current roster that are too old and will, or should, be gone by then are beloved veterans Sal Perez and Whit Merrifield along with Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and of course, Zach Greinke. A handful of others will, or should, be gone by then: Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, and Brad Keller. I love Benintendi. He’s the Royal’s best player this season. Dayton Moore made a great trade to get him. Can he make another great trade to move him? Mondesi has the tools to be an impact player, but his minor league and major league slash leave don’t indicate that he ever will be. Plus, there’s the annual injury thing.

Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez both look like they could be impact bats. So, there’s two. Now we have the unknowns. For the hitters, Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto are the most widely talked about. If both work out, and that’s never a sure thing, that gives us four impact bats. The unknowns would be Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, Emmanuel Rivera, Brewer Hicklen, and Michael Massey. Everyone in that group is between 24 and 26. Age-wise, the hourglass is running out of sand. There may be another two or three in the minors who continue to develop and emerge, but I’m not overly optimistic. In short, it appears that the organization is short of impact bats.

How about the arms? The Royals have a stable of starters between the ages of 24 and 26: Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Heasley, Jackson Kowar, and Foster Griffin. Every one of them has talent and has shown some flashes, but their performance in 2022 leaves a lot to be desired. Their slow development rests with either a poor scouting system or poor player development. I do not know that answer, so take your pick. In the minors, there are a few arms with major potential: Drew Parrish and Anthony Veneziano are 24 and could be in Kansas City soon. Will Klein, a hard-throwing reliever, is only 22. But as they say at NASA, the clock is running.

I’m going to go on record here with the prediction that two of the Royals' top prospects, Asa Lacy and Erick Pena, will never play in the majors. Lacy has battled injuries since being the team’s top choice in 2020 and has only pitched in 16 games. That’s 16 games total, not 16 games this season. You can have a cannon attached to your shoulder, but it doesn’t do much good if you can’t stay on the field. Lacy could end up with a similar career to Kyle Zimmer.

Pena is only 19 but has languished in the low minors to the tune of .152/.248/.551 for his career. The Royals brass raves about him, but the numbers don’t lie. He either doesn’t have the skills or the Royals do not have the ability to unlock them. Again, take your pick: poor scouting or poor player development. Or both.

On an organizational basis, I was a Dayton Moore critic before it became fashionable. I also give him credit when due. He rebuilt the Royals organization after the dark decades. He rode a couple of solid drafts and two fortuitous trades (Greinke, Wil Myers) to the promised land. That window opened and closed quickly due to poor drafts, trades and free agent signings. When you’re a small-market team, you cannot afford to blow too many of those, and this administration has blown several.

I believe as an organization that the Royals are at a point where they need a complete front office overhaul. Even if that does not happen, my analysis tells me that they are not going to be in competition in 2023 or anytime soon thereafter. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I just don’t see the numbers. I could be wrong, and I hope I am. Short of some miraculous development with ten or twelve players having simultaneous career years, there just isn’t enough talent in the cupboard.

Being competitive on a consistent basis in baseball is hard. Rebuilding in the NBA or NFL, where players make the jump from college (or in the NBA’s case, one year out of high school) to be contributing members of the team, is vastly different from the timeline of MLB rebuilding. If a baseball team can be successful in their talent evaluation, drafting, player development, trading and free agent signings, they can develop a sustainable winning culture. Too many consecutive failures in any of those five arenas will throw a wrench in any club’s future.

Judging and developing baseball talent is hard. Winning a World Series and keeping that competitive window open is even more difficult. As fans, we will fork over $95 for a lower bowl ticket, $12 for a beer, $21 dollars to park or $130 per season for a TV package. In exchange, all we ask is for some level of competence by the organization that gives us at least the illusion that they are trying to win. Trotting out an aging first baseman with a .181/.318/.292 slash night after night does not instill confidence. Watching our ballyhooed draft prospects struggle, does not inspire confidence.

Organizational failure usually follows this path: denial, complacency then wishful thinking. It appears to me that the Royals front office is deeply into the wishful thinking phase. Meantime the natives are restless. They want someone’s head on a pike and when they get that way, it’s usually the manager, coaches and GM who get piked up. I’m 61 and have been a fan since the Royals were birthed. It was 30 years between World Series wins. There were times I doubted that they’d ever win another Series, but they did, and it was sweet. It’s not too late for this group, but I’m not optimistic. I just hope that the team can become competitive one more time before I go to the great ballpark in the sky. Is that too much to ask?

In the meantime, all we can do is appreciate watching some of the kids develop and enjoy those brief windows when the team gets hot and wins a few.